"The Little Prince" is that rare literary work: small in length, but about very large matters. Antoine de Saint Exupery's fable, childlike in spirit but cut through with a Gallic sense of life's accidental nature (that few adults can begin to accept), compresses the highest novelistic ambitions into a night's reading. Perfect, it would seem, for translation to the stage.

Lerner and Loewe thought so, adapting the story into one of their characteristically firm musicals that left one wanting more.

David Zucker thought so, too, adapting the book into play form for the Boston Repertory Company in 1971. After a bevy of successful runs of this version, Zucker and director/producer Esquire Jauchem have finally brought it to Los Angeles, at the Cast Theatre. We're still wanting more.

Something is missing, but you can't simply blame Zucker's adaptation. It is strikingly close to the Saint Exupery text (the production uses projected graphic slides directly transposed from the book), sculpting characters out of a tale that is really a series of character sketches. But, then, that is precisely the problem.

This is not the case of a faithful adapter killing what was inherently theatrical in the original. Not when there's nothing very theatrical to kill in the first place. Indeed, Zucker's close transposition exposes what was the nagging lack in the musical, as well as in Stanley Donen's 1974 movie--conflict, growing toward some realization out of the battle. Fables don't really need that; stage plays do.

Pitting the Aviator (David Morse), downed in the Sahara Desert, against the Little Prince (Aeryk Egan), who's on a mission to Earth to help his own little planet, would provide a battle. But this is a story about how two unlikely people need each other (and not just for survival), and how they build a friendship on the need. Book and play both believe in the goodness of the human (and non-human) family. Even the Snake (Bridget Hoffman) is helpful, being able to send the Little Prince back into orbit when he needs to.

"The Little Prince" never argues its good-hearted case; it doesn't need to, as it simply demands to be taken on faith, like a good fairy tale. But it's more than that, because it is also about what it means to have faith, to know that life's real meaning may be invisible (just as the Aviator's drawing of an object with a lumpy middle and two narrow tips isn't of a hat, but of a boa constrictor digesting an elephant). Adults, again, have problems with that, as the Aviator learns in the desert.

An imaginative take on this idea could possibly make "The Little Prince" stageworthy, especially in the hands of a director with a keen sense of visual legerdemain (with the Aviator addressing us in presentational style, I kept imagining this on the Taper's thrust stage).

But Jauchem, basing the "Los Angeles staging," (according to the program) on Zucker's original production, displays little in the way of invention. Old story theater tricks, such as Lee Moore, Sheldon Feldner and Michael Orloff forming a Sahara water well, won't do, especially with the current "Baron in the Trees" giving story theater a major face lift.

Even a clever director, though, wouldn't likely find a means to bypass Saint Exupery's flashback narrative structure--the bane of good dramatic structure. The little man, who refuses to answer the Aviator's questions, instead tells of his encounters across the universe. They provide charming character studies for Moore, Feldner, Orloff and Hoffman, but the long tale-telling feels like padding to fill out what would otherwise be fairly skimpy goods.

Morse's pilot recedes into the background, bland beyond recognition. It's more of a reading than a performance, so our eyes rest on Egan, attracted to the maturity in this very young child actor. Visually, he's so like the Prince of the book that he provides the one thing in this show you can believe in. He's still more a boy than a man, but give Egan time.

Performances at 804 N. El Centro Ave. are Saturdays and Sundays, 2 p.m., until Sept. 27. Tickets: $9.50; (213) 462-0265.

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